No more car scenes for 'Driving' director

No more car scenes for 'Driving' director

"Driving" director: When writers evolve into writer-directors, one of the first things they discover is how much easier it is to put something on the page than it is to shoot it for the screen.

A case in point is British screenwriter Jeremy Brock, who makes his directorial debut with the heartwarming comedy "Driving Lessons," opening Friday in New York and Los Angeles via Sony Pictures Classics. Produced by Julia Chasman, "Driving" was written by Brock and stars Julie Walters, Rupert Grint and Laura Linney.

Among Brock's screenwriting credits are "Mrs. Brown," directed by John Madden and starring Judi Dench and Billy Connolly; "Charlotte Gray," directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Cate Blanchett, Billy Cruddup and Michael Gambon; and "The Last King of Scotland," directed by Kevin Macdonald and starring Simon McBurney, Gillian Anderson and Forest Whitaker, which opened to huge business in platform release Sept. 27 via Fox Searchlight Pictures.

When Brock called me recently from London in the course of our conversation he explained that he'll never ever write any more car scenes for his director-self to have to deal with. We'll get to that, but first I asked how he managed to get a shot at directing a feature?

"'Driving Lessons' is a project I've been nursing for many years," he replied. "I started the first draft about six and a half years ago, basing it loosely on my own experience of adolescence in a dysfunctional North London suburb of Finchley. I had this experience briefly with Dame Peggy Ashcroft whereby I lived in her basement and because I couldn't afford to pay her rent I cleaned her house for her. This was an inspiring experience for me because I adored her from afar. She was an icon. And really the relationship didn't develop in any deep sense except that I adored her and that she gave me confidence to believe I could one day express myself and break free from my family. So that was the burning kind of motivation to write the script.

"But I also wanted it to be a comedy about friendship and faith, if you like. Getting it financed turned out to be, as always is the case, tougher than I had imagined. It's a tiny film. The budget was &x#00A3;2 million. It doesn't get much tinier. Although I'm an untested director, I'm known as a screenwriter. But I had to prove my commitment before the money would come. Obviously, we got Julie Walters and then suddenly the finance started to fall into place."

As is typically the case, having a star made things move along. "Oh, boy!" he exclaimed. "It opens doors." It was early last year that Walters was secured. "But we needed a combination of Rupert and Julie to really convince people that they had something they could commit to financially because I was untested at that time," he pointed out. "And really from the moment I sat in a cafe on the South Bank of the River Thames with Julie Walters saying 'I'll do it,' things started to move much more swiftly. And suddenly I was confronted by the reality of my ambition, which is a different kind of thing to dreaming. Suddenly it was real and I had to knuckle down and (make the movie)."

Asked how his writer side and his director side get along with one another, he replied, "It's a very good question. And the answer is that I kind of enjoyed this schizophrenic relationship with myself. Maybe that says something about me, but I knew that I was writing a piece that mixed genres and that is a piece that plays around with bathos and pathos simultaneously. My stars are people like Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson. I love their movies. I kind of was happy mixing my relationship with myself, too. I could wear those two hats quite comfortably. I was tough on myself as a writer because I discovered as a director that less is more.

"As a writer, obviously your business is the written word so you kind of fall for sometimes the more prosaic descriptions of a scene. And as a director I found myself going, 'How much do I need here to describe this? Do I really need all this prose or can I just say, 'They walk in and the room is a reflection of Evie's personality' and that's enough because the rest will be done by the designer and me. I learned brevity and I learned to trust the audience to get much more swiftly than I had imagined what the relationship was between the mother and the son, for example. They get it really quickly and they understand that this is a boy that needs to be empowered and needs to break free, but they don't know how he's going to manage it until they see that the iconoclast Evie (played by Walters) although infantile is somebody who can offer him the first real friendship he's had."

It was when I asked Brock about the challenges of production and what he found the most challenging that he replied, "The toughest challenges (involved) shooting cars. My God, if I ever write a script like that again, shoot me because shooting cars, shooting on a low loader, you just have no time. Time disappears and you're facing the wrong way, you've got diesel fumes, you've got actors sweating in front of the car and you've got to communicate with them by radio. I just sat there at one point when it was raining and it wasn't meant to be raining and there was no continuity with the previous day, thinking, 'Why have I done this? Why have I put people in a car? Why didn't I put them in a field or somewhere where I could control it more?' It was a nightmare. I hate low loaders. I hate moving vehicles because they're fucking horrible to shoot."

After sharing a laugh with him over that, I suggested, "You'll have to speak to yourself, the writer." "I certainly will," he promised. "But believe me, any time I write INT. CAR ON THE MOVE it's gone. It just doesn't happen."

And then there were the challenges of shooting when the weather man's not cooperating. "This is the worst country for that," he said, referring to the U.K. "What you do is you improvise. Our budget was so low that we couldn't get away from London and so we were in a perpetual flight path nightmare. The number of times that I had to lose a take because of airplane noise was numberless! I began to appreciate why people shoot in studios in a controlled environment. Because suddenly all those things are gone and you can concentrate on what you intended to do in the morning when you woke up instead of standing around waiting for the cloud to go or the airplane to drift off. It sounds so mundane, but actually on the day that you're clockwatching and you realize that you're losing your shots, it can really, really do your health in. You know, you can get so tense."

Casting the film turned out to be a lot easier than shooting it. "Julie read it and she got it, if you like," he said. "She read it and realized that this was a part that wasn't just purely comedic. At least that's my feeling now, but everyone else must make their judgments. The part offered her the opportunity to be both comic and also to explore what it feels like to be a vulnerable and slightly infantile person who is out on a limb, who's grown eccentric because they're so isolated. She, herself, knows actresses not as successful as her who struggle and could see that there was a chance to paint a portrait of a particular kind of English woman who has just peaked past a certain point where they're going to get roles in musicals or music halls or even TV and is struggling with that reality.

"And so they start to create a fantasy world for themselves. She just kind of really got it and wanted to get her teeth into it. She's so wonderfully open hearted as a person that we were able to discuss every aspect of it and how to modulate the performance so that we chose carefully when she could be big and when she had to come down and play it quite flat, which was something that we worked on."

Another of the film's pivotal roles is that of Ben, played by Rupert Grint, a shy 17 year old who's able to get away from his overbearing mother, played by Laura Linney, by taking a job helping Walters' character Evie, an eccentric retired actress. Grint, of course, is famous for playing Harry Potter's pal Ron Weasley. And it's Walters, of course, who plays Grint's mother in the Potter films.

"It was tricky, you know," Brock told me. "He's so well known. My fear was, would Ron Weasley tip the balance against the character? But I have always had a great admiration for Rupert Grint's naturalism. I've always felt watching him in the Harry Potter movies that he had a talent for the hardest thing, which is to simply be yourself on camera. 35mm film is very unforgiving of actors who are even remotely mannered and Rupert's the opposite of that. He's a complete naturalist. I knew that the part required him to be very still a lot of the time.

"The boy for the first half of the movie is bearing witness and then slowly he gains the confidence to speak for himself. Rupert's an actor who just naturally works well with that very minimal material. It's just in his nature. He's a restrained and quite young guy. He's just got that wonderful transparency that I love that Julie has and that people like Judi Dench have. It's just a thing that I love to watch on camera."

It helped that Grint and Walters had worked together in the Potter movies. That, he said, was "good and it was amusing. When I asked Julie, 'Are you going to have a problem with that?' she said, 'Oh, no, darling. He and I in Harry Potter is one relationship. This is a completely different thing. It can only benefit from the fact that we have known each other and worked together.' And that was the case. From the point of view of directing them, I found the fact that they knew one another to be an advantage. And then everyone forgot that they acted mum and son before."

This being his first film as a director, I asked if he found it to be terrifying or exhilarating? "Terrifying and exhilarating -- exactly," he replied with a laugh. "Both and probably in that order, if I'm honest. I was terrified. Absolutely terrified. I was blessed with a very, very collaborative and supportive DOP (Director of Photography David Katznelson). I had not fully appreciated just how important my cameraman was until I was on set and he was protecting me. I had done storyboards for every scene in the movie. I storyboarded it twice, which seemed to take me forever. I do (draw) crudely, but enough to communicate to a good DOP what I'm intending."

His terror was mitigated against, he pointed out, "by a feeling that I had done my homework and that I had in David Katznelson a genuine collaborator who would stand by me when things got (difficult like when) you can't use your storyboard any more because it's raining, which happened all the time. He just stayed very calm. It meant that the real business of protecting the actors and containing your anxiety could carry on. The one lesson I've learned, I guess, is that directing is about orchestrating. It's about conducting an orchestra of talents.

"I'm not a great fan of the auteur school because even when I hear about auteurs I think of the whole crew around and think, 'But wait a minute. There's so much talent that goes into the making of a movie.' It felt personally as if my job was to conduct the design talent, the acting talent, the lighting talent (and so on) and so create a particular music, if you like, to carry the analogy to its bitter end. That was how it felt and that's how I enjoyed it on the really good days."

In working with his actors, did he rehearse much? "We did a little bit of rehearsal," he said. "We had a week, I think, in the end. We did block a few scenes, but the blocking was another thing that really terrified me -- how do you block and where's the camera and all of that? But in reality what tended to happen was that we blocked quite simply, the actors on the whole just kind of going where they felt naturally they needed to go. And then my cameraman and I would adapt the storyboard according to how they felt most at ease working with the scene. Again, the real sort of revelation and the pleasure was realizing that what's so great about film is...that you can be wide and then go right in. So it allows the actors to play as minutely as they want and you still capture it."

Watching someone like Linney work, he observed, "is just a revelation. She had a very difficult (role). She had to play the kind of female equivalent of the husband who goes out to the pub and pisses away the money and comes back and shouts at everybody. She plays a tough, tough character. I've always admired her enormously and I wanted, if I could, to draw from a talent in the States so that the film would have a profile. The only issue would have been (her American) accent, but that wasn't an issue because her talent is supreme. And it proved to be the case because the accent was the least of her concerns. I sent her the script and flew to New York. It was pretty much a week later when she'd read it and liked it and wanted to meet me. She met me. She couldn't have been more charming even though I knew I was auditioning.

"She never made me feel like that. And actually we just got on so well and she so understood the nature of what this part entailed -- the fact that she was playing an evangelist who was very controlling and frightened of letting go of her son. She just got it all completely and just couldn't wait to go for the comedy, too -- all these moments (when) she delivers wonderful deadpan humor. She's terrific."

"Driving" came to Sony Pictures Classics, he said, "because it was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in one of the many slots that they have. They saw it at Tribeca in New York (this spring) and then they picked it up, which was fantastic because they're a serious organization and to get them was hugely significant for me personally. I have always believed that the film would find a natural home among the indie audience in America because its influences are, in fact, American. My influences are American, not British. Even though it's a quintessentially English film, it is influenced heavily by Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson and Todd Solondz and people like that."

The film's producer, Julia Chasman, he noted, "is American. She's based in L.A. And she was crucial to the film getting made. What had happened is that I had been touting my early draft of the script around and people had been very nice about it and said, 'We really like the script, but we don't really see yet how we could take a punt on this because there's no cast attached and it doesn't feel quite real enough.' Julia had been working with me on a couple of scripts that I was working on for her. I showed her the script and she said, 'Well, we should do this together.' And really from the moment she came on board it started to feel more real both to other people and to me. She had that kind of go-getting never say die attitude, which I really admire and which Americans have, in my experience, in abundance and the Brits don't have enough of.

"She just wouldn't let go, wouldn't give up, and it was really a consequence of her determination and ambition for the film that we got to a point where we could package the product and say to people, 'Look, now, give us the money!' and they did. It needed the injection of her enthusiasm and also her experience. She's an experienced producer. She's produced 'Quills' and many other movies."

The film's two million pound budget was a tight one, he said, "and when you're doing six day weeks because you haven't a choice, it feels even tinier."

As for the future, "I would love to direct again," he told me. "I would be very sad if I didn't get the chance to have another go and get better and learn more. I'm writing something for myself. I would jump at the chance to direct something by somebody else if it felt right. I'm very hooked on the idea of doing it again because there is a lot to learn and I do feel that I could bring my particular oddities to bear again."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Apr. 7, 1988's column: "This week's news that the MGM half of MGM/UA is again the object of takeover bids leaves one not only with a feeling of deja vu, but also with a heightened sense of respect for Kirk Kerkorian, who owns 79% of the company's stock.

"After all, given the fact that the new MGM has neither studio land nor a film library, there's not an awful lot still there to sell. In the brief period since Kerkorian sold the old MGM to Ted Turner for $1.5 billion in 1986 and then repurchased certain MGM assets for $730 million, the studio has gone from being an essentially dormant operation to being a Hollywood player once more.

"Although MGM sank with its wide Christmas release 'Overboard,' starring Goldie Hawn, it scored a major boxoffice and critical success with its limited holiday release 'Moonstruck,' directed by Norman Jewison and starring Cher. Its thriller 'Masquerade,' starring Rob Lowe, has not done particularly well, but its current release, 'Bright Lights, Big City,' directed by James Bridges and starring Michael J. Fox, got off to a good start at the boxoffice last weekend.

"Under MGM/UA chairman and CEO Lee Rich, MGM chairman and CEO Alan Ladd, Jr., MGM marketing president Greg Morrison and MGM/UA Distribution president David Forbes, much has been accomplished in a short period of time in terms of getting MGM back into action. The degree of success they've had is illustrated by the fact that suddenly MGM can again be regarded as being substantial enough to be worth taking over.

"The situation, in fact, is seen by some insiders as having special potential since Lorimar, which owns MGM's old lot in Culver City, is also presently in play. As a result, a buyer with deep enough pockets could acquire both MGM and the Lorimar real estate and match them up once more. Talk about deja vu!

Update: Talk about deja vu, indeed! MGM continues to be an example of how the more things change in Hollywood the more they remain the same. After seemingly being acquired by Sony and other investors, MGM has now come back to life under a new management team headed by Harry Sloan and Rick Sands. It's distributing films again and getting back into production, as well.

MGM has a promising slate of December releases in The Weinstein Company's London-set drama "Breaking and Entering," directed by Anthony Minghella and starring Jude Law and Juliette Binoche, opening in New York and L.A. Dec. 8 and expanding next year; Irwin Winkler's war drama "Home of the Brave," starring Samuel L. Jackson and Jessica Biel, opening Dec. 15 in New York and L.A. and going wide in early January; and "Rocky Balboa," directed by and starring Sylvester Stallone, opening wide Dec. 22.
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